Artist Tony Price (1937-2000) dedicated himself to creating the provocative and visionary body of work he called atomic art. With fantastically shaped machine parts discarded by the nuclear weapons programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Price fashioned ingenious human and animal forms, often based on figures from the world's spiritual and religious traditions. Many of his admirers consider him to be a modern-day alchemist who transformed the technology of death into works of art and capacitors for thought.
The Dalai Lama immediately recognized the significance of Price's atomic sculptures. On a 1991 visit to Santa Fe, during which he saw the artist's work, he said, "Tony Price is very clever. He has done something useful with something that is not useful."
The goal of alchemical transformation had a metaphysical basis in Price's mind. The artist viewed his sculptures as channels between positive spiritual energy and the destructive energy of nuclear technology. In his artist's statement for a Governor's Gallery exhibition in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test. Price wrote, "When the vibrations of the nuclear scrap have been shaped into spiritual energy images, a vibrational tunnel or bridge is formed from the religious energy banks to the nuclear weapons banks, and an automatic balance of ener- gies would be established. These sculptures act as valves, bringing the dark and light energies together to balance and thus hold the peace."
An exhibit of sculptures by Tony Price opens today, March 5, at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Tony Price: Atomic Art features 21 of Price's masks based on spiritual icons, including Samurai Spirit Mask/Nagasaki, Anti-Nuke Warrior Kachina, Nuclear Garuda (from the Hindu tradition), Prince Moses Speaks Out on Nuclear Waste, Atomic Quetzalcoati and Odin/Chief Nordic God.
Though the art world gave Price little recognition (and he never sought it), people often feel an immediate connection with his work. Part of his accessibility stems from his sense of humor said James Rutherford, the exhibition's guest curator and a former Director of the Governor's Gallery.
"Price infused his work with a sardonic sense of humor which mitigated the terrifying nature of the subjects he was addressing," said Rutherford during a recent phone interview "His work lets people laugh at a nuclear weapon. We are finally able to release it, to not be held hostage by it. It's similar to how the clown, or koshare, works in Native American cultures." Even Price's titles reveal his political stance in humorous ways: Pontius Pilate Award for Washing Hands of Nuclear Situation, The Atomic Art Highbrow Award for Top Nuclear Physicists Whose Ideas Lead Us Back to the Stoneage, and Native Who Sold His Island for a Nuclear Test (with tears streaming down his face).
In Price's The Last S.A.L.T. Talks, metallic diplomats meet to discuss the future of the planet after nuclear weapons have destroyed all life. Price fashioned each sculpture so that the wind or a gentle push would set its parts rocking against one another, creating strangely beautiful and lingering tones. The work has been installed at various times in Battery Park in New York City The Shidoni Sculpture Garden in Tesuque and Biosphere2 in Oracle, Ariz. One marvels at the kind of imagination that could take a machine part from some long-forgotten nuclear experiment and recognize in it a chin, an ear or a moustache. When seen in Price's sculptures, it seems as if the part were made for that very purpose, and none other.
The video in this exhibit. Atomic Artist by Glenn Silber and Claudia Vianello, aired on PBS in 1983. It contains some marvelously ironic footage of Price combing through the Zia Salvage Yard at Los Alamos National Laboratory, picking out discarded pieces of equipment for which taxpayers spent an unfathomable amount of .money and buying them for 25 cents per pound. Required by law to sell its detritus back to the public, the lab has regular auctions that attract all kinds of folks drawn to obsolete scientific artifacts.
"Los Alamos, to me, was folding a place of just pure raw-materials and fantastically, beautifully shaped metals," Price said on the video. "I found it a perfect mountain of art to experiment with, to create with, and I go out looking for specific parts, and sometimes there it'd be, right there, just as if hundreds of men had machined these things for hundreds of hours and carted it out and dumped it right there in front of my feet."
Price first became aware of the lab's salvage yard in 1966, when he noticed the exotic shapes of glass and metal at the home of his friend, photographer Walter Chappell. Soon Price had become a regular visitor at auctions. He continued to support his family by making stone carvings of cowboys and Indians for tourists, but every spare dime went into buying materials for his atomic art.
For a long time Price kept a studio in El Rancho, then in Santa Fe. Around 1992 the artist moved to Reserve, N.M., on the Arizona border, to be near his children.
"It proved difficult," Rutherford said. He had few allies out there. It was isolating. He didn't take good care of himself and had a massive stroke." Though friends in Santa Fe rallied to his aid. Price never recovered. He died peacefully the morning of a beautiful spring snowfall on March 3, 2000.
It was important to Price that people see his sculptures in one setting, and his friends and admirers are laboring to make that dream a reality. Plan's have been proposed for a permanent home in Santa Fe for the remaining 144 pieces of atomic art in Price's collection. Rutherford said an announcement about such a facility is expected soon. To see the proposed plans, visit http://newartsweb.com/atomicartist
"Something has been released that can't be put back," Price said of nuclear technology on the video. "It has to be dealt with. The artist has the responsibility to keep people awake to these
horrors. I feel a type of responsibility to build these things from this place. The hope is that it
would awake them, it would remind them, it would get them thinking about it. It is all our problem, not just the artist's problem. It is a problem of everybody."